April 3, 2016
The Second Sunday in Easter
“They Recognized Him”
by Rev. Ryan Slifka
It’s Easter afternoon, three days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Two of Jesus’ disciples, one named Cleopas, the other nameless, are on the road out of the city of Jerusalem, and towards the small town of Emmaus. We don’t know why Emmaus, exactly, but we know that there’s nothing left for them in Jerusalem. Three days earlier Jesus, their friend, their teacher, their Lord, had been betrayed and crucified. They have heard the tomb of Jesus was found empty earlier that day, but stuff like that just doesn’t happen. It’s all over. Time to move on.
So they are going along the road discussing the events of the past few days. Going over how things unfolded. And this stranger asks them what they are talking about. "Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” it says. “Where’s this guy been?” They can’t believe that this dunce hasn’t heard about Jesus’ death and crucifixion. We thought he was the one to liberate us, says one of them. So much for that. But then this stranger lectures them for their unbelief. And then there on the road the stranger busts out a Bible study with them. I’d be pretty freaked out—usually when strangers bust out the Bible for me I want to run in the other direction. But this stranger does a Bible study with them, and shows them all about how Jesus, who was crucified, fit in to promises of the Old Testament. And about how the Messiah is supposed to suffer, die and rise from the dead. How the whole big story is supposed to play out.
After the Bible study they mosey along down the road and eventually make it to the village. This stranger says he’s going to move on. But they ask the stranger to join them for the evening meal. When he breaks the bread, says the text, "their eyes were opened" and they recognize him. It’s the resurrected Christ. And as soon as they recognize him, he immediately vanishes.
Jesus was there the whole time. Joining them on the road. Listening to them, questioning them. Opening their hearts to the scriptures. Jesus is right in front of their faces. And they don’t see him.
It seems kind of crazy. They were right there. They saw Jesus and his ministry. But when he shows up again, they just can’t seem to believe it’s possible. They can’t see him. Even though he’s standing right there in front of them.
I don’t know about you, but these disciples kind of remind me of me. I sometimes envy friends who have an ecstatic experience of God’s presence. Whether it’s dreams or visions, or mystical encounters. Where God’s presence is so clear and so obvious. But my guess is that this isn’t the experience for most of us. Most of us are just like these disciples. We talk a lot about experiencing the God’s presence. And the whole promise of Easter is that Christ is risen. It seems to be that somehow, mysteriously, Jesus lives. Death could not bind him and he continues to be our brother, our friend, our guide, our Lord. And joins us on the road. But where is he? How’s that even work? These disciples knew Jesus when he lived. And yet, they don’t even recognize him when he shows up. So how are we? Christ is supposed to be right in front of our faces, even now. But if he is, like these disciples, our eyes have somehow been “kept from recognizing him.”
But the beauty of this particular scripture passage is that they do see him. They do recognize him. If even for a brief and shining moment. He’s a stranger for most of their journey. Until one glimpse. “They ate…” it says… “they ate, and their eyes were opened.” They see him, then he’s gone. And everything from that point on changes. They do a 180 degree turn and run back to Jerusalem to tell everybody. Their lives are changed forever.
How’s it even happen? The spell of not seeing is broken in the breaking of bread. It could have just been really good bread I suppose. “This tastes divine.” But it’s not just the broken bread that breaks the spell over them, that removes the veil from their eyes. After they recognize him they say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Here the heart burn comes before the meal. A fire was kindled within them by having the scriptures, God’s story opened to them. So then they were able to see, him, to recognize him, when they finally sat down to eat. The disciples’ vision is cloudy. They aren’t able to recognize Jesus because it’s not within their understanding of how the world works. Resurrection doesn’t fit. They can’t see it. It’s like Jesus uses the Bible to perform cataract surgery on them.[i] And now they are able to see again. Their eyes are opened to Christ’s presence in their midst. Now they see with the eyes of faith.
Like I said, I sometimes envy friends who have an ecstatic or mystical religious experiences. But it’s interesting because here it’s like they are having a mysterious experience of the risen Christ the whole time. They just don’t know it at first. And so I wonder if that’s where this passage is pointing us. That the Risen Christ is already present to each of us. That God’s Spirit, God’s presence and power are already active in our lives. We just don’t see it. The great Reformer John Calvin once described the scriptures as the “spectacles” that bring God in to focus in the world. That God is already at work in the world, our problem is the eyes we try to see it with. One of my favorite novelists, Marilyn Robinson, was once asked how she experiences God’s presence. And she replied that she’d always just assumed that every moment, every experience, is an experience of God’s presence. If only we have eyes to see. When the scriptures get inside of us, shape us, and are able to kindle a fire in us, that’s when we can see it, experience it, know it.
Did you notice just how ordinary this scene is? Here it’s not a flash of lightning, an earthquake, a miraculous healing, or a blood red moon. No, here Christ shows himself as a stranger on the road. A conversation. In a Bible study. In an act of hospitality. In the breaking of bread. It’s like when Jesus opens his disciples’ to the scriptures, it’s like he’s opening our eyes to see the whole world differently. It’s an invitation to look for Christ’s presence, and to listen for his voice everywhere in our lives. Even the unexpected places. That we’re able to recognize him in a stranger on the road. At an ordinary meal with friends and family. At this table, later in the service where we break bread and pour out wine, to open ourselves to the presence of the Risen one.
Or maybe even more. After the cataract surgery, after we’ve had our prescription for new lenses filled by the Risen Christ; then maybe we’re able to recognize him where we’ve never thought to look. Maybe we’ll recognize him carrying a dirty back pack and pushing his whole life around in a grocery cart. Maybe we recognize him in the face of a Muslim family desperately fleeing terror and violence and destruction back home. Maybe we might recognize him in those who have wronged us, seeing them through new lenses of forgiveness, and freedom. Maybe we might even see him in all the places we hate about our own selves, the places where light and love seem most absent. In our best friends, but also our worst enemies. In times of great joy, and even times of great sorrow. Because with Easter eyes, with the eyes of faith, our world does a whole 180. And all the places where we have been “kept from recognizing him” are places to meet him. And to see him. And to be changed by him. Through the power of God’s Spirit.
“When he was at the table with them,” says the good news according to Luke, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. We gather here again, like those same disciples on Easter afternoon. Today we gather from lives headed out on the road in many different directions. Today we gather to have our hearts kindled by God’s resurrection story, and to encounter and recognize the risen Christ, who so often is hidden from our eyes. And to be given whole new eyes to see the world. Easter changes everything. Because Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
[i] Thanks to my friend Ed Searcy for this insight.